The Roots of the American Spirit

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The Roots of the American Spirit
The Roots of the American Spirit

The following article is adapted from
the book Liberation Theology: How Marxism Infiltrated the Catholic Church written by Julio Loredo de Izcue.


In the United States, the problem of liberal Catholicism presented itself somewhat differently. The question centered not so much upon trying to accommodate Catholic doctrine to the heritage of the French Revolution of 1789, but rather to a peculiar interpretation of the American Revolution (1765—1791). In its popular manifestations, this interpretation presented itself more as a way of life, a generalized mood, than as a body of structured and coherent doctrines. Studying this way of life is extremely important to analyze the development of liberal tendencies in the bosom of the Church.

We have already mentioned the fascination America exerted on European liberal Catholics in the nineteenth century, especially through the work of Alexis de Tocqueville. In the twentieth century, the influence of the Americanist mentality—more than its doctrine—turned out to be decisive. In fact, the world to which they claimed the Church had to adapt was shaped not only by socialist influences from Moscow (easily criticizable as coming from an ideology condemned by the Church), but also, and often preponderantly, by the influence of an Americanist mentality that exploded in the Roaring Twenties.1 This mentality, all the more insidious because it was not easy to attack, became hegemonic in the West after the Second World War. It was the same mentality that penetrated large sectors of Catholic Action, weakening its fiber and opening it to the influence of the new theological doctrines.

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The American Revolution was heir more to the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment than the continental one, though the latter also played an important role.2 The democratic and liberal principles born of this Revolution did not reveal the degree of revolutionary virulence shown by its French counterpart, although sharing a common lineage. The leading political currents in the early United States did not manifest the common European haste to draw out the extreme consequences of the revolutionary postulates. Rather, they preferred a cautious gradualness and prudent empiricism more congenial with the prevalent Anglo-Saxon temperament and the common sense proper to the dominant capitalist-mercantilist mentality. We need only contrast George Washington’s gentlemanly figure, measured countenance, and moral standards with the vulgar grimace, sanguinary agitation, and debauchery of Marat in order to grasp the sharp differences between the movements they typified.

In 1776, when the thirteen American colonies proclaimed their independence from the British crown, few residents doubted that a great nation was aborning. Expressions such as “providential mission,” “manifest destiny,” “great project,” often employed in speeches at the time, conveyed the general yearning that the United States were destined to carry out a great mission in a not-so-distant future. Even the grandeur of its vast and grand geographical panorama seemed to mirror that destiny.

Most public men, and more broadly the population, saw this mission within the historical perspective that led to the independence of the United States, born from a liberal revolution. In breaking away from the mother country, the former colonies did nothing more than apply the postulates of Protestantism and the Enlightenment in the sociopolitical sphere. The confluence of both currents, along with significant remnants of British tradition still present on American soil, formed what we may call the original national spirit.

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American Liberalism assumed, however, a different character from its European counterpart. While in continental Europe Liberalism showed above all its Jacobin, radical, and violent face represented by the French Revolution, in the United States it showed a somewhat smiling, optimistic, and moderate character, eminently pragmatic and averse to great ideological enthusiasm. It favored slow processes instead of sudden jerks.

This diversity also came from the respective historical contexts. While in Europe Protestantism and Liberalism still had to eradicate mighty remnants of medieval Christendom and impose themselves through bitter controversies and bloody revolutions, in the United States the ground was already prepared since a medieval Christendom had never existed there. Liberalism was thus able to prosper in peace and harmony, avoiding unnecessary haste, dampening religious and ideological disputes, and gradually shaping a broad consensus tending to a peculiar style of religious, moral, and philosophical relativism.

Moreover, the country’s very governability required this kind of consensus. Indeed, in the political arena the United States formed a confederation of thirteen virtually independent states that did not always agree with one another. In the religious sphere, in addition to the minority Catholic Church, they incorporated a multitude of Protestant sects, none of which could boast hegemony. Furthermore, monarchist sectors were still strong enough to oppose significant reaction should the country slip too quickly to the left. Indeed, royalist feelings were so strong that the possibility of crowning George Washington as king was considered more than once.3 His official title was “His Most Serene Highness, the President of the United States of America.”4

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Any conflict among Protestant sects, between them and the Catholic Church, or between different political or ideological factions could compromise the fragile institutional stability of the young nation. Creating an atmosphere of mutual understanding, religious and political freedom, and prudence in governance was thus necessary for the maintenance of national unity, which in turn was a conditio sine qua non for the fulfillment of the great mission Americans saw for their country.

What resulted was not just a philosophy. Rather, it was an affable and welcoming way of life that saw clashing opinions from a distance as something typical of backward societies. It was an optimistic and irenic way of life that favored pragmatism and dodged theoretical disquisition as being always dangerous since it can easily give rise to absolute ideas and, thus, to pernicious ideological divisions. This way of life enabled the establishment of a climate of peaceful coexistence light years away from the European ambience, endemically ruptured by controversy and wars. Albeit bloody, the Civil War between North and South (1861—1865) was a parenthesis in this long history of national harmony.

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Concessive by nature, this state of mind could easily degenerate into unbridled Liberalism susceptible to eliciting responses that could have dilacerated the national fabric, even if just by giving rise to counter-revolutionary movements. To avoid this, the State took on the defense of the Christian religion in general as the foundation of the moral and social order. Hence the paradox of a constitutionally nondenominational State which nevertheless openly proclaimed itself Christian to the point of incorporating a number of religious events into its public life. We are referring to the so-called civil religion.

Later, that way of life was enhanced by the Industrial Revolution precisely because it did not have to overcome the typical obstacles posed by Europe’s traditional societies. It spread in the United States as in no other country, provoking a worship of the practical and a rejection of theoretical thought as being a non-movement and therefore a non-life.


  1. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira defines this mentality as “a subconscious, and sometimes conscious state of the mind whereby enjoying life is raised up as the supreme human value, and one seeks to understand the universe and organize life in a voluptuous manner.” Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “O coração do sábio está onde há tristeza,” Catolicismo, no. 85 (Jan. 1985). “While Europe seemed to sink into chaos, America attained the zenith of Wilsonian splendor. The United States had reached its apogee.” Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “A dinamite de Cristo,” O Legionário, no. 321, Nov. 5, 1938.
  2. Anglo-Saxon thinkers normally sustain that the Enlightenment started in England and Scotland, and only afterward expanded to the European continent, where it acquired a different tone. They thus distinguish between the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment, prompted by Locke, Hobbes, and others, and the Continental one represented by Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, and the other French philosophes. They credit the former with having triggered the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, the American Revolution, and the liberal-capitalist revolutions that followed in their wake. They fault the latter for having generated the French Revolution, Socialism, Communism, and anarchism. Thus, noted neo-conservative scholar Irving Kristol asserts, “Though the American Revolution was inspired by a rather casual intermingling of the two Enlightenments, it was the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment that was, in the end, decisive.” Irving Kristol, Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 142.
  3. See Minor Myers, Liberty Without Anarchy (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1983), 84. According to Pauline Maier, “The very word [republic] inspired confusion, such that John Adams, perhaps the country’s most learned student of politics, complained that he ‘never understood’ what a republican government was and believed ‘no other man ever did or ever will.’” Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765—1776 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 287.
  4. Having returned to Philadelphia, after his tenure as ambassador in Europe (1784—1789), Thomas Jefferson lamented, “I was astonished to find the general prevalence of monarchical sentiments insomuch that in maintaining those of republicanism, I had always the whole company on my hands, never scarcely finding among them a single co-advocate in that argument.” Arthur Meier Schlesinger, New Viewpoints in American History (New York: Macmillan, 1928), 82.

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